Monday, September 26, 2016

The Hard Corps #4: Slave Trade


The Hard Corps #4: Slave Trade, by Chuck Bainbridge
October, 1987  Jove Books

The Hard Corps returns in another action onslaught courtesy William Fieldhouse, who appears to have been like Joseph Rosenberger in that he figured out his own personal formula for writing an action novel, and by god, that was the formula he was going to stick to. As such, Slave Trade follows the same format as the previous three books, its barebones plot centered around a handful of massive action sequences.

Rather than the usual template of the Corps being hired for its latest assignment, this one opens with the team already on the case – and slaughtering with impugnity. As we meet them the Hard Corps has followed a group of bad-ass bikers to a club in a desolate patch of California. Team leader William O’Neal and second-in-command James Wentworth go in to interrogate the bikers, Joe Fanelli and Steve Caine providing unseen backup. As soon as Fieldhouse mentions that Wentworth is wielding his customary samurai sword, you know where the scene is going.

Sure enough, pretty soon the bullets are flying, the samurai sword is dicing, and the blood is spouting. While his action books mostly follow the same format, one can’t claim Fieldhouse shirks on the gore, with copious detail of limbs being hacked, intestines exploding out, and heads blasting off. The question only remains why our heroes are slaughtering these bikers. It’s because they are the enforcers of a new cult called The Fellowship of Ultimate Living which is based in Australia but has recently opened a branch here to the US. Led by a (supposedly) charismatic guru named Harold Glover, the cult has been accused of brainwashing its young members and even selling some of its prettier followers on the slave market.

But Fieldhouse, like many other pulp authors who have taken stabs at cult-villain tales, fails to convey to the reader why anyone would even want to join the Fellowship of Ultimate Living. Glover, the few times we see him, is a conman with a taste for sadism who doesn’t display any “guru-like” qualities at all, leaving the reader to wonder why so many young people have flocked to him. Rather, he mostly sits around with his muscle-bound henchman Thor and talks about selling guns, drugs, and women.

For that is the problem, really, with Slave Trade; it’s just a lot of talk, so far as the plot and threat go. We’re given to understand that Glover has his hand in the slave trade, drugging the good-looking women in his cult and selling them to the highest bidder, but none of it is presented to us. Rather, the entire novel is basically a few dialog-exchange sequences which link together massive, pages-filling action sequences. But Fieldhouse is one of the men’s adventure authors of the day who really delivered on the gore quotient – he’s almost up there with David Alexander – so one can’t complain when practically every action scene has heads getting chopped off and brains “pouring out.”

At length we learn that O’Neal and team has been hired by a group of parents whose teen children were caught up in the Fellowship of Ultimate Living movement and then subsequently disappeared. One of the parents is an attractive lady around O’Neal’s age named Carol, a widower whose daughter was apparently killed by the Fellowship – all that’s known is that, after she disappeared with the cult, the girl kept writing her mother for more and more money, until one day when Carol got a call that the police in Phoenix had found the girl’s dead body.

However, this doesn’t stop the sparks from flying between O’Neal and Carol – the Hard Corps team leader finds himself really liking to “behold” Carol’s mature-but-lovely form, which leads Slave Trade in a direction completely unexpected for a William Fieldhouse novel. Believe it or not, friends, this installment actually has a bona fide sex scene, as O’Neal scores:

Soon her head was buried in his crotch, her wide, soft lips licking greedily at the head of his cock. Carol took him in her mouth slowly, an inch at a time until her lips touched his taut balls. Carol held him in her mouth as she sucked eagerly at the length of his quivering prick. 

Before O’Neal could reach the brink, Carol straddled him and guided his throbbing hard-on between her thighs. O’Neal sighed with pleasure as he sank slowly into her chamber of love. The woman rocked gently, gradually drawing him deeper inside her. O’Neal braced himself on one hand and sat up to kiss Carol’s breasts. His tongue and teeth teased her rigid nipples as he drew on her breasts with his lips. 

Their lovemaking slowly reached a peak. Carol, no longer in control, began bouncing and bucking against O’Neal’s crotch. He arched his back to thrust himself along with the rhythm of the woman’s motion. Carol moaned loudly with excited pleasure as she climaxed. O’Neal held back until Carol reached a second orgasm before allowing himself to come.

Boy, they don’t call ‘em “the Hard Corps” for nothing! 

Otherwise the Fieldhouse template remains. Early on Fanelli and Caine pay a visit to new character Benny the Wizard, a forger based out of Seattle. As soon as Fieldhouse mentioned that Benny was nervous, I knew exactly where the scene was headed. And sure enough, a group of thugs storm into Benny’s place, demanding payment in blood for a bad set of forgeries Benny sold them. As ever, this leads our heroes to pull out their own weapons and slaughter the thugs, saving Benny’s life – and apparently assuming he won’t pull the same scam on them.

The novel’s next big action sequence has the Hard Corps staging an assault on a theater in which Glover is holding a massive rally. Given that in the beginning of the novel they massacred the entire biker gang which was serving as the Fellowship’s enforcement arm, this time our heroes are up against two-bit thugs, ones easily outmatched by our battle-hardened heroes. But as usual the gimmick with the Hard Corps is less about any tension or suspense in the action and more so about the unique and gory ways the protagonists kill their enemies.

The second half of the novel has the team going over to Australia, Glover having absconded there after this lastest massacre of his people in California. Once again though it must be mentioned that throughout this we never actually see the commune or get a glimpse of any of the people who so blindly follow Glover; rather, it’s just the Hard Corps killing one hired goon after another, with the occasional dialog exchange reminding us how evil Glover is, what with all his drug-dealing, gun-running, and slave-trading. To me this is the biggest failing of the novel, as Glover and his cult could've been greatly expanded on.

Instead, we learn here that Glover is planning a big meeting with a bunch of Japanese mafia bigwigs, hoping to sell them a large stash of guns or somesuch. In reality I realized immediately why these yakuza chumps were introduced – so Wentworth would have someone to swordfight with. And yes, that’s exactly what happens! Glover’s headquarters for the Fellowship is “hidden” in the sprawling expanse of the Outback, and our heroes eventually locate it after circling about the area on chartered planes.

In fact, a C-130 transporter plane factors into their assault on the headquarters, and given how arbitrarily it’s introduced I have to assume the element was foisted upon Fieldhouse by a Jove editor so as to cater to the already-commissioned cover painting. At any rate the Hard Corps fly right up to the veritable doorstep of the commune nd launch into another gory, pages-filling battle, this one featuring not only lots of shooting and knife-slicing but also an elaborate samurai swordfight between Wentworth and one of the yakuza. We also get a brutal brawl between O’Neal and Thor, and while Glover’s send-off is appropriately apocalyptic, it would’ve been more satisfying if we’d seen more of his sadism in action.

Slave Trade is filled with such endless action that it just ends right here, Fieldhouse apparently having hit his word count and thus not worrying about tying up any loose ends. Like what happens to all the cult members; it’s implied that they will be set free, and early we saw our heroes getting disgusted at how the imprisoned Fellowship brainwashees were treated, but it’s all very cursorily dealt with. The subplot with O’Neal’s romance with Carol is also dropped. But Fieldhouse can’t be faulted for realizing that he was writing, first and foremost, an action novel. And in that regard he suceeds greatly, as Slave Trade is filled with splashing blood and blasting brains and more inventive deaths than we’ve seen since the first volume.

And yet despite all that there is something listless about the novel, something sort of missing, and ultimately I didn’t find it as fun as the previous three books. Here’s hoping then that the next installment features at least a little more in the plot department.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Moonlovers


The Moonlovers, by Olaf Lornquest
January, 1975  Pinnacle Books

One of the dumbest, worst books I’ve ever read, The Moonlovers is a sleaze novel with sci-fi trappings. One gets the impression that it is intentionally stupid – the author clearly didn’t intend for it to be taken seriously – but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, ultimately, stupid. It’s also a waste of the reader’s time…not to mention the narrator’s.

As with most terrible books, I get the impression that the story behind The Moonlovers is more interesting than the novel itself. “Olaf Lornquest,” clearly a pseudonym, writes his sleaze in that sort of Loeb Library-esque fashion; ie you see the words “manpost” and “manrod” a lot, and phrases like “engine of copulation” and “mount of Venus,” rather than the more sleaze-traditional anatomical terms, which are only used sporadically. In other words, the novel is written to the sleaze standards of a decade (or more) earlier, even using that same sort of faux-formal narrative style.

So my assumption is this: the novel is a holdover from Pinnacle’s earlier days as sleaze imprint Bee-Line. Maybe it was written in the ‘60s by someone who ended up being an editor at Pinnacle and thought they’d publish it as a lark or something. Who knows. At any rate I’m willing to bet this was written well before the mid-1970s. As further proof, the novel occurs in 1978, only three years after the publication date, yet it features interstellar space travel, aliens, and a voyage to the moon; tellingly, man’s first trip to the moon, in 1969, is never mentioned. Likely because it hadn’t yet happened whenever the book was actually written.

Anyway, it’s 1978. Our narrator, astronaut Stan Bailey, is about to head into space on his latest voyage – no mention of anyone else on his rocket, another indication of this predating the Apollo program. But Stan is nonplussed to discover he has a stowaway, once the capsule has disengaged from the rockets and gone into space – none other than Valerie Hobbs, his mistress of the past eight years, and the wife of his best friend(!). That “Val” could even live through takeoff without oxygen is brushed over – she claims she hid on a moonrover or something – so Lornquest can focus on the more important stuff; to wit, that Val has caught Stan “in the act” of fondling “Roscoe,” ie his pet name for his “manpost.”

Valerie, pointedly described as not “traditionally” attractive but still sexy, is a mother of two with somewhat “sagging” breasts who makes her living as a singer and classical pianist. Stan spends the first fifty pages flashing back to how they became an item: after initial interest, the fireworks started one night when Val’s car broke down outside the home of Stan and his wife, Ginny, and Val ended up spending the night there with her two kids. That night she and Stan began their affair, which has now lasted for eight years. Valerie didn’t want to be without Stan during this latest trip into space, so snuck onto the rocket to be with him for a few days!

When the sleaze occurs, it’s written in that formal/highfalutin style you’d encounter in such books from the ‘60s or even ‘50s:

The weightless state was amazing in the comfort and relaxation it afforded. Perhaps it was for this reason that I felt myself having a beautiful erection. Cupid’s javelin was extended farther than I could recall having seen it before. The spearhead was large, and drops of love dew were accumulating at the little mouth. It pulsated triumphantly in response to my heartbeat. Val eyed it admiringly. 

“Oh, put that lovely thing inside me,” she said.

Lornquest, curiously, seems more game to have Stan describing his own “javelin” rather than the protuberances of Val or the other women he has encounters with. Also curious, and off-putting, is how Lornquest feels the need to focus on bodily waste or injury from sex; for the former, we have Val peeing into a sort of zero-gravity funnel moments after announcing her presence in the capsule; and for the latter, Val is injured horribly during an orgy with aliens(!), and Stan himself is put through a Pavlovian experiment where he’s hit in the balls anytime he gets sexualy excited.

Even though he sprinkles lots of “tech talk” through this opening half, with Stan communicating with control back on Earth about his haywire orbit (Val’s unexpected presence throwing the capsule out of whack), Lornquest isn’t much interested in delivering a hard sci-fi yarn. Instead, Stan and Val pass out after their whopping orgasms…and when they wake up, the capsule has landed somewhere, it’s super-hot inside (more gross body stuff with details on how sweaty and unwashed they are), and after putting on their space suits they discover they have somehow landed on the moon!

We even get an unwitting prefigure of Lost, when Stan and Val discover an air lock built into the dusty lunar soil. Rather than freaking out, they, uh, head back to their capsule to clean themselves off with sanitary napkins and then have more sex. Finally they decide to inspect that air lock, because they can no longer contact Earth and they’re running out of supplies and air. So they go down into the metal tunnels and encounter…my friends, they encounter dog men

That’s right, friends – dog men!! Biped canines capable of both speech and interstellar travel, these creatures, led by Vorf, have set up camp here on the moon for some reason. But this is a sleaze book – Stan could care less about who these beings are or where they came from – instead, he’s more curious about their sexual apparati! Once again our hero shows a lot of attention for the male anatomy, as he notes that the dog men seem to be equipped mostly like males, with some changes. Long story short, turns out they’re hermaphroditic.

Stan and Val stay with them for weeks, until one day Vorf announces that Vowfoff nears. The annual orgy, Vowfoff is comprised of the dog men drinking copious amounts of varma, their potent wine, and screwing each other senseless. And hey, Stan and Val are welcome to join! At first the two of them are all by their lonesome as the dog men engage in a humping chain all about them…

While I had had some memorable sexual experiences, most of them with Val, I could scarcely compare them with the ecstatic experience we achieved in our first copulation in Vowfoff. 

The heat and moisture of her Cupid’s cavern enveloped my invading probe and seemed to draw it inside, to lengthen and strengthen it. I stood there, holding her against me, crushing her wonderful breasts against my chest, straining her buttocks toward me so that I could enter her more fully. She clutched me frantically, and we strained toward each other again and again.

But then the humping dog men sidle closer, one of them taking on Val…and one of ‘em taking on Stan! So our narrator continues to have sex with Val, who is also enteraining an “invading probe” from one of the dog men, with more in line, waiting their turn – while our hero himself is sodomized. So this is another of those vintage sleaze novels that feels the need to cover all the bases…

As mentioned, Lornquest likes to equate sex with pain, so after the madness of the orgy Lornquest and a bleeding Val escape, where Val realizes she’s been quite damaged by those dog men phalli. Meanwhile they run into another settlement, here in the underground world – the Miroslava Space Detachment, a Russian space outpost which is composed mostly of women, run by the stout Olga. They too have experienced Vowfoff – they claim it has made many of their women insane, and all of their men insane – and they inspect Val, revealing that some important things have ruptured inside her(!). But don’t worry, they’ll fix her up.

Apparently the Russian women have a peaceful relationship with the dog men, who by the way promptly drop from the book. The Russians are here for, you won’t be surprised to know, procreative purposes; their mission was to have rampant sex to propagate the Russian seed, but all those insane men are now incapable of any shenanigans. But hey, Stan looks hale and hearty…

Surprisingly, The Moonlovers doesn’t descend into an endless sequence of Stan entertaining one lusty Russian gal after another. Instead he’s put in his own room, and each night a mystery woman sneaks into his bed, arouses him – and then either hits him in the balls or causes him some other sort of pain in that region and runs away, laughing. So once again we’re on the sex=pain kick, and Stan is in misery, complaining often to Olga, who also acts as the chief doctor.

Eventually some of the mysterious female visitors begin drawing forth Stan’s “essence” with their mouths, funnelling it into beakers and then running away – after again hurting him, once he becomes aroused again. At length it dawns on Stan that he’s been used in a Pavlovian experiment, courtesy Olga, who reveals herself as a man-hating shrew who has done all of this because it is her goal to destroy all men. She throws Stan in a cell with a still mentally-damaged Val, and humorously it takes Stan weeks to realize that he and Val are now prisoners!

Apparently Val’s reproductive area has been repaired, because despite her mental damage (she’s incapable of much talk and is afraid of everything) she gradually becomes more hot and bothered for Stan, thus leading to yet another long sex sequence, she and Stan fueled by some of that alien Varna wine Stan conveniently finds, after which they pass out – and then Stan wakes up in his own bed, in his home on Earth, his wife Ginny nervously shaking him awake.

Yes, friends, the entire goddamn thing has been a dream – and I mean all of it. Not just the stuff with the Russians, the dog men, the space flight itself – everything! For it turns out that Stan fell asleep, that night “eight years ago” when Val’s car broke down outside his house…and thus every single thing in the book was a dream, even his long relationship with Val!

“But I had loved her so!” Stan marvels, and then insists his wife not allow Val inside, because “that’s how it all starts!” Ginny gives in to Stan’s bizarre rantings, thus Val and her children are not allowed inside the Bailey residence, and thus Stan avoids the eight years of infidelity with her – not to mention the sex-and-pain filled trip to the moon.

So as mentioned, the entire book is pretty much a waste of time, but it’s got big print and it’s short. That’s not to say I recommend reading it, though. This is one I’d advise avoiding at all costs.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Death Merchant #38: The Burning Blue Death


Death Merchant #38: The Burning Blue Death, by Joseph Rosenberger
April, 1980  Pinnacle Books

The 38th installment of Death Merchant sees Richard Camellion venturing from Holland to DC to West Germany, in a borderline sci-fi adventure that spans about three months. At this point in the series Joseph Rosenberger was freely indulging in his fringe science interests, to the point that, for once, we have here one of the rare installments that is more composed of dialog and plot rather than action sequence after action sequence. Indeed, there are only a handful of action scenes throughout The Burning Blue Death.

We get the impression from the outset that this won’t be a typical installment, with an opening missive from the Death Merchant himself:


It’s quite strange reading such words from a fictional character whose business is death and who has killed, by a rough estimate, perhaps a thousand or so people by the time of this novel’s events. But The Burning Blue Death is High Rosenberger for sure, overwritten to the point of insanity (183 pages of super-small print), littered with egregious footnotes, filled with metaphysical stuff like auras, Krillian photography, and Spontaneous Human Combustion (or SHC). For a while it’s occurred to me that there are some points of similarity between Death Merchant and The Mind Masters; both series seem to come from authors with rather twisted imaginations, and Rosenberger and Rossmann/Ross clearly share the same interests – even the writing styles are somewhat similar, with both authors prone to having their characters baldly exposit on esoteric subjects, even referencing specific magazines and articles verbatim.

But whereas The Mind Masters put more focus on sleazy sex and less on action (at least in the first three volumes), Rosenberger as we know could be guilty of turning in a book that was really just one overlong action scene after another. The problem with that is, at least for me, Rosenberger’s no David Alexander. I mean, that guy could write a 183-page action scene that would probably be a blast to read, so to speak, but Rosenberger’s action scenes can be turgid and repetitive. This is why installments like Burning Blue Death are so special – a rare instance of Joseph Rosenberger putting more focus on the story and the latest weird assignment Camellion has undertaken. I’ve only read a few other Death Merchant novels I could say the same of (for which reason they’re still my favorites): The Cosmic Reality Kill would definitely be one, as would be Blueprint Invisibility.

When we meet Camellion he’s in Holland, having just appeared the previous night on a late night TV show starring “the Johnny Carson of the Netherlands.” As ever Camellion is in one of his disguises, this time looking like a Dutchman in his 60s. He’s put a bunch of ads in various newspapers asking about SHC, which is what he discussed on the TV program the night before. Gradually we’ll learn that a few US notables, including a Senator, have literally gone up in flames recently, imploding with blue flame. Camellion, like his creator, is enamored with esoteric subjects, thus is so handedly familiar with Sponataneous Human Combustion that he can easily pose as a scientist specializing in it – even speaking in pristine Dutch. Unfortunately we don’t see the TV bit. Rather, the focus is more on the goons Camellion is certain will be coming for him, given that he pointedly revealed some info that would surely come across the attention of whover is behind these SHC attacks.

Sure enough some goons come a-calling late that night, but have no fear – Camellion is armed with some cool-sounding modified .45s that have elongated barrels and pistol grips in front of the trigger guards. (Dean Cate has illustrated one of them in his typically-wonderful cover art.) There follows the standard Rosenberger action scene, complete with rampant POV-hopping where we are suddenly informed the names and backgrounds of the one-off gunmen who show up briefly enough to shoot at Camellion, miss, and get killed. Throughout Camellion has on “old man” makeup and a half-bald wig and wears very sci-fi-sounding night vision goggles, which Rosenberger must’ve thought were so cool that he actually describes them twice; Camellion wears them again in the novel’s final action sequence, and Rosenberger tells us all about them as if forgetting he already did so a hundred pages earlier.

Thirteen days later and Camellion, in another disguise, is over in London, having tracked down the man who hired the thugs who failed in the hit on him in Holland. As ever working with the CIA (with whose local director, Harvey Spare, Camellion engages in page-filling arguments about everything from SHC to gun control), Camellion puts together a team and raids the tobacco shop of his target, a man named Marmis. Here Rosenberger gets positively poetic about the variety of expensive tobacco to be found in Marmis’s shop, only to finally inform us that Camellion doesn’t smoke(!). And speaking of our hero, his latest disguise has him as a “crippled up” old man, complete with a cast on his arm.

There follows another Rosenberger action scene, more tedious than exciting, which again culminates with everyone dead, including Marmis – killed by a fatal drug accidentally given him by a junior agent. But Marmis’s place is really a hideout for a branch of the IRA, and once everyone’s dead Camellion finds coded documents written in the Labanotation method – humorously, Camellion instantly knows they are written thusly, given that he is an expert on every subject known to man. Finally the SHC angle returns – I was afraid at first that The Burning Blue Death would be another Death Merchant that squandered its fringe science plot with random shootouts and whatnot – and Rosenberger muses on the subject via several pages of case studies.

A whopping six weeks later, Camellion’s back in the US, working with usual CIA contact Courtland Grojean, and the CIA specialists have finally broken the code. Marmis’s uncoded documents hide illustrations of men in weird-looking suits, complete with metal rods sticking out of “skullcap”-type helmets; Dean Cate also attempted to illustrate this, at the top of his cover art, but it looks like he misread Rosenberger’s description, or perhaps the Pinnacle editor didn’t properly convey it, as the dude in the drawing looks more like the grand dragon of some sci-fi KKK branch. Courtesy more bald exposition with CIA science contact Dr. Russell Courtier, a biophysicist from an unsepcified New York university, we learn that SHC might be induced artificially, and indeed the Nazis were working on such a weapon.

Mention of “The Brotherhood” in those coded documents has Camellion figuring a neo-Nazi group is behind the plot. After a brief firefight with thugs who try to take him out on the way to his apartment in the DC suburbs – after which he spends a week, off-page, in jail – Camellion hops a plane to Germany. Twenty-three days later, he’s now working with a group of West German agents and researching the SHC developments made by the Nazis in WWII, under the guidance of a scientist named Helmut Koerber. We learn that the SHC device was called the Transmutationizer, and we see one in use, as a group of Brotherhood gunmen attack Camellion and crew, two of them wearing portable SHC devices which are powered by a trailer truck. Some of Camellion’s comrades go up in weird blue flames.

It seems that just about every Death Merchant climaxes with an assault on a fortress, and such is the case with The Burning Blue Death. Having determined that an old SS sadist named Baron Hammerstein is behind the Brotherhood and the plot to use SHC to kill off his enemies, Camellion teams up with a crew of West German agents and British SIS commandoes and storms the Baron’s Gothic castle. Here Rosenberger again tells us all about Camellion’s new-fangled night vision goggles, apparently forgetting he already told us about them before, and also we’re informed that Camellion makes use of a Sidewinder submachine gun, which us Pinnacle diehards know was a gun also favored by fellow imprint hero The Penetrator.

The ensuing action scene is heavy on the carnage – as ever Rosenberger injects just the right amount of gore in his action scenes, with heads blowing off and whatnot – but is a bit unsatisfying in that the villains of the piece, Koerber and Baron Hammerstein, are quickly introduced and dispensed of within just a few pages. However we do get to see more usage of the SHC device, with friend and foe imploding with blue flame. Camellion, realizing this would just be yet another device used to terrorize mankind, ends up destroying the Transmutationizer. The designs for building one are also lost, what with the massacre of the people behind it.

As usual the highlight of this Death Merchant is the arbitrary ranting of Camellion, which is to say Rosenberger. He bitches about religion, anti-smoking (ie warnings not to smoke), and Jimmy Carter, among many other things, though to be honest his Carter-bashing is perfectly understandable. The highlight though is Camellion’s theory on the “level of incompetence,” which he discusses with Grojean:

“The principle is very simple. In every organization, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. That is, if people do well in one job, they are promoted to another higher up the ladder, and so on until they reach a job they can’t do well. As soon as people reach jobs they can’t do, they tend to make mistakes because they’ve reached their level of incompetence. Understand?” 

“Certainly. The cream rises until it sours.”

I planned to put a Hillary Clinton joke here, but decided not to, so as not to offend anyone who might be planning (for whatever reason) to vote for her.  Plus the joke wouldn’t have worked anyway, because Hillary Clinton has never done well in any job.

Finally, here’s a review by Allan.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Satan's Chance


Satan's Chance, by Alan Ross Shrader
March, 1982  Ace Books

Picked this one up a few years ago on my last horror fiction binge and I’m just now getting to it. Satan’s Chance appears to have been the one and only novel by Alan Ross Shrader, and it’s clear that this is the work of a first-time novelist: it’s a too-busy doorstop of a book (385 pages of small print) with too much melodrama and soap opera, and it takes much too long to get interesting.

Published in early 1982, the novel takes place in late ’85, during the next visit of Halley’s Comet (which I remember quite well, though damned if I was able to see it! As I recall it was too foggy or something…). Our hero is Ted Witherspoon, a young history teacher who very recently married the lovely Jill Banner, a physical therapist. The story is set in San Francisco, and Shrader peppers the novel with enough details for the reader to assume he was familiar with the place. He also invests Ted and Jill with enough personality and background that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts, but boy does he spend a little too much print in this effort.

For as it is, the first 60 or so pages of Satan’s Chance are a slooow-moving, soap operatic affair. Ted we’ll eventually learn spent his formative years in an insane asylum, sent there against his will by his aunt and uncle. When Ted was a child he had visions of his parents dying in a plane crash, but no one believed him. When they did in fact die in a crash into the Pacific, he was consumed with grief – there’s a helluva lot of teeth-gnashing courtesy Ted throughout the novel – and it got worse when, years later, he had another vision, this one of his sister being run over by a car while riding her bicycle.

The same scenario played out; no one believed Ted, but this time his aunt and uncle even took him to a shrink. Humorously enough, while everyone was at the shrink’s, Ted’s sister hopped on a bike – and was promptly run over by a car. This time a grieving Ted was locked up in the local loony bin, as still no one believes he predicted anything and thus must be nuts. But anyway all that was a long time ago and he’s kept this hidden from Jill. Lots of stuff here about their new marriage and their small circle of friends. But then one night in November 1985 Ted’s visions begin again.

Here the melodrama gets thick. Ted becomes a veritable bed-wetting simp, reduced to catatonic frenzy after a late-night vision of a fiendish Jill with glowing eyes, followed by a mysterious voice intoning “She is in danger.” Again keeping this from Jill, Ted acts like a nail-biting new parent, pacing the floor and watching the clock anytime Jill leaves their apartment. Oh, and Jill has troubles of her own, tending to a game-legged roughian who harbors impulses of sexual violence. It just goes on and on, more so a turgid melodrama than a horror novel.

In fact it’s laughable at times, particulary when it comes to Ted’s escalating paranoia and his attempts to keep his fears from Jill. At one point Ted’s pal, whom Ted has confided in, tries to tell Jill about Ted’s fears, but can’t bring himself to do it – this goes on for pages and pages – and eventually it culminates with Ted screaming at him and promising to kill him if he ever talks to Jill again. There are lots of scenes of Ted screaming like a ninny when he walks into their empty apartment, screaming for Jill – who shows up, wondering what the hell is going on. In true soap opera style, Ted even resorts to booze, causing another fight, as Jill tries to upend a bottle into the sink:

“It has got to stop, Ted! It has got to stop!” 

Ted ran over to her. “What are you doing? Stop it!” 

“NO!” she shouted, emptying the bottle and throwing it in the trash. “I’ve had enough, Ted! I can’t let you destroy yourself!” 

“Stop it!” he hissed, grabbing her arm. 

“Let go!” she screamed. She knew she was getting hysterical but the momentum of her emotions was too strong to stop. Ted was destroying himself! He was destroying them both!

And so it goes, friends, sad to say. The entire friggin’ novel is like this, like some really bad After School Special.

Finally, stuff starts to happen – like over a hundred pages in. Reports filter around SanFran of a glowing-eyed woman who tossed some muscle-bound dude, or so the dude claims. Another interminable sequence follows as Ted listens slackjawed to the man’s story, of how a woman with demonic, glowing eyes just tossed the man like he was a ragdoll, and Ted can’t get over how it’s so like his vision. But Ted’s vision was of Jill! (The narrative is like this, by the way, with many sentences ending with exclamation points, further lending the book an unintentionally-humorous melodramatic tone.)

Here in the gaggle of people Ted runs into an old man, and much later he’ll realize – he was the old man in his vision! Now Ted continues to run around San Francisco like a screaming ninny, looking desperately for this old man; somehow he manages to hook up with a grizzled cop named Bates, who for whatever reason lets Ted tag along with him when he goes to murder scenes(!). Comically enough, all Bates does is ridicule Ted, calling him “Mr. Concerned Citizen” and mocking his concerns over these “monstrous” deeds going on in the city, which of course begs the question why Bates would even bring Ted along with him in the first place, but I digress.

Anyhoo, glowing-eyed women are killing people and animals and then dying themselves. Ted is certain all this has to do with his vision and that Jill will somehow be endangered herself. Every scene though is played out past the breaking point, like when Ted rides along with Bates to a murder scene where an obese woman with glowing eyes was reportedly sighted and also apparently ripped apart an old woman’s dog. The novel’s first sex scene occurs here, and it’s quite graphic, only marred by the fact that it’s Bates conjugating with the, er, obese woman – he’s found her hiding in the woods, and is instantly mesmerized by her glowing eyes.

Shrader finally delivers the twisted stuff I want, well over a hundred pages in, as the woman traps Bates’s member in her with her demonically-superpowered nether-region muscles and then he stares into her demonic eyes and falls into them, and is reborn as a demon embodied in a human’s skin. But nothing much is made of this, and indeed we’ll later learn that Bates’s own body has been found. Also there’s some business about these demon-people scrawling a Halley’s Comet-like symbol in blood at scenes of their crimes. 

The old man meanwhile gets his own overlong subplot; he’s an ex-priest named Simon who, back in 1938, came across an ancient parchment which claimed to give a rundown on the truth of good and evil. FYI, Satan’s Chance is one of those horror novels squarely in the Catholic or at least Christian mold; Satan is a real presence and only belief in Christ (or at least, wearing a cross) will save you. I can take or leave these types of books – unless that is they’re filled with sleazy sex, as was the case with The Nursery – and sadly there isn’t enough of “the good stuff.”

It gets even more unintentionally humorous when Simon reveals that the ancient parchment contained prophecies of various events which happened after the time of its writing, including the fall of the Roman empire and WWII. And guess what – Ted himself is mentioned in it, prophecized as “the Orphan” who will one day decide who wins the battle between God and Satan! Ted’s reaction to this? He throws yet another hissy fit that his “entire life has been a lie” and tears up Simon’s ancient parchment! I tell you,this guy is a loser, but we’re stuck with him.

Ted continues throwing hissy fits, paranoid that Jill will be consumed by the Satanic forces. And unsurprisingly, it’s Ted himself who causes her to be possessed, regardless – during one of the novel’s few action scenes, a demon-possessed man attacks Jill, Ted, and Simon, and Ted kills him. Thinking he’s victorious, Ted is shocked when Simon berates him. For now “the demon is free” to posses any of them – and sure as shit it possesses Jill. Now Jill becomes a smokin’ hot she-devil bitch from hell, but you won’t be shocked to learn that Shrader doesn’t exploit this development very much. No, we have to endure more of Ted’s self-pity and hissy-fitting.

Simon gets killed, by the way, and eventually Ted finds himself the new leader of the motley crew of believers who have congregated around the old ex-priest. It’s full on Christian Fiction as Ted, now a firm believer, wields a cross and goes about casting out demons and whatnot, a skill learned from Simon, who gave his life saving Ted from one of those she-demon hell-bitches who tried to bang Ted in the novel’s only other slightly sleazy sequence. The crux of Satan’s Chance is that Halley’s Comet is the “effigy” of Satan, and initiates his potential conquest of the world – it is up to “the Orphan” to decide who the victor will be, as “God needs the help of man to defeat Satan.”

Given that the novel opened after the events of the story, with a dazed Ted being carted off to the hospital, we already know that he survies – the question which is supposed to keep us turning the pages is whether Jill did. No one will be surprised to discover that she has, in fact, lived, and also her demon was cast out by Ted, who in an act of mercy (ie, not blowing away the demon-possessed Jill) threw the balance on the side of the “Loving God,” and thus Satan was defeated.

The end – and if ever there was an opportunity to thank God, this would be it, for we are finally done with this overwritten slog of a novel.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Traveler #4: To Kill A Shadow


Traveler #4: To Kill A Shadow, by D.B. Drumm
November, 1984  Dell Books

John Shirley delivers another fast-moving Traveler installment that reads more like splatterpunk horror fiction than the typical post-nuke pulp; of all the authors I’ve read in this subgenre, Shirley is the best at conveying the horrors of a post-nuke world. But by “horrors” I don’t mean starvation and disease and widespread suffering; rather, I mean gut-churning monstronsities that have been spawned by the radioactive fallout. While Shirley’s preceding two volumes have had horror elements, To Kill A Shadow goes full-bore, with our hero confronting one nuke-created monster after another.

But whereas such monster moments would be played more as a goofy creature feature in say Doomsday Warrior, Shirley’s monster moments are a helluva lot more creepy and scary – not to mention gut-churning. He’s got some sick stuff this time out, displayed immediately, as Traveler, now up in Northern California to look into some “strange US military business going on up this way,” runs into a pack of cen-cars, ie half-men, half-cars. Sounds super-stupid, but these are such disgusting creations – they haul around translucent packs, in which you can see the digesting remains of the humans they’ve eaten, for example – that it isn’t played for laughs at all.

It’s now 2005, we’re informed, whereas the previous volume was in 2004; not sure how much many months have passed, but Traveler has been thinking about heading back down to Arizona to hook up again with Jan, the sexy Indian babe he fell in love with last time. But first he’s up here in California to find archenemies Vallone and the Black Rider, to finally settle the score he has with both of them. This is how he runs into the cen-cars, which we’re informed are pre-nuke military experiments that have run amok in the post-nuke world.

Indeed, all the monsters Traveler encounters this time are the creation of genetic experimentation courtesy the post-WWIII American army; as in previous books, there’s a rabid anti-right sentiment throughout. Shirley was no doubt the only leftist punk rock writer in the entire men’s adventure/post-nuke pulp genre, and that’s once again quite apparent; his books have an edgy energy uncommon for the genre. As we’ll recall, Vallone is the bastard who caused Traveler’s nervous system to be damaged by a neurotoxin chemical before the war, and now he’s become the head of the “Glory Boys,” ie the leather-clad soldiers of the new United States.

Traveler wants to kill the bastard once and for all, plus he also wants to take out the Black Rider, the all-black mutant biker who first appeared in the second volume. Traveler figures the two might be involved with whatever “military business” is going on here in California. During his gory battle with the cen-cars Traveler comes across human captives who are bound and hanging, waiting to be feasted on by the creatures. He frees them and escapes to their commune, which is run by Brother John, aka “Christ.” The people here, each of them named “Brother” or “Sister,” are part of a religion that sees John as Christ reborn, his “Holy Book” providing them all the guidance they need.

Sure enough, the Holy Book has prophecized a “Holy Warrior,” and Brother John – an amiable sort whom Traveler thinks looks more like a young rock star than a religious leader – is certain that Traveler is he. Traveler as expected smirks at all this, and besides he’s more interested in Sister Ilana, aka “The Doubter,” a tall, sexy member of the commune who keeps throwing our hero the eye. Turns out she’s had her own vision about him – he’s the man she’ll fall in love with, but whose presence will lead to her death. This doesn’t stop them from engaging in one of Shirley’s patented hardcore sex scenes, which unfortunately is the only such scene in the book.

Traveler’s shenanigans with Ilana serve to piss off chunky, unattractive Sister Jane, who gets revenge by setting Traveler up; the only person on the commune who has seen any of the Glory Boys, Ilana guides Traveler over rough country for a few days, leading him to where she claims to have seen the soldiers – and right into a Glory Boy ambush. (For her troubles she’s sent to the experimentation pens by Vallone.) In a brief firefight Traveler’s head is hit and he’s blinded. He manages to escape, running blind through the woods, and Shirley doles out more of his creepy-crawlies: Trompers, these bizarre creatures that are like hunchbacked legs that the Glory Boys ride on, and Snakeheads, half-men, half-snakes.

Brother John’s people save Traveler, thus putting them in danger of reprisals. Meanwhile a recuperating Traveler spends more quality time with Ilana and also befriends Robbie, a twelve-year-old boy who has grown up in the commune and is subtly presented as the son Traveler was supposed to have – the son who was incenerated in the nuclear war, several years ago. Shirley doesn’t make this budding relationship cloying or maudlin, and spends occasional sections of the narrative in Robbie’s perspective, so we readers see that he’s a strong character in his own right, and a survivor just like Traveler.

Shirley this time also brings back the metapyhiscal aspect of the series, courtesy Nicholas Shumi, the wizened Buddhist monk who rides around on his elephant-sized mutatn cat, Ronin. Shumi and Ronin appear sporadically, with Shumi again telling a cynical Traveler that Traveler is an important person in post-nuke America. He also intimates that he has “plans” for young Robbie. Shirley opens up the novel a bit further with Quinlow and Buford, bumbling dudes who work for the military as Snakehead handlers but who harbor a lot of resentment for Vallone and the Black Rider; clearly meant to remind the reader of Laurel and Hardy, these two eventually become Traveler’s comrades. 

Luckily the blindness stuff doesn’t stick around long – it too being foretold by Ilana in her vision, by the way – and it turns out a bullet lodged in his skull has impaired Traveler’s sight. After surgery, he gets his sight back in another tense action scene, in which Ilana has been captured by Vallone and the Snakeheads and held for ransom. In the fight, Traveler not only regains his vision but is also unable to save Ilana, who is killed by one of the Snakeheads, thus fulfilling her own vision-prophecy. Wisely, Shirley doesn’t waste much print on her after this; Traveler buries her, thinks grim thoughts, and gets on with the business of revenge.

First though he has to prepare Brother John’s commune for the attack that is to come. Over the next week Traveler trains these people how to fight and how to defend themselves; from Quinlow and Buford they have learned that Vallone will be unleashing his latest biological horror upon the commune: the Gutters, which are like biped rhinos. They have horned heads which are designed to gut their prey, hence their name.

The ensuing battle is chaotic and bloody, Shirley mostly relaying it through Robbie, who proves himself to be a hero. Traveler meanwhile has gone off to gather up his “secret weapon,” which cleverly turns out to be those cen-cars. When Traveler defeated their leader, early in the book, the surviving cen-cars honked their horns at him as a sign of their fealty(!). Now Traveler drafts them in the bloody battle against the Gutters.

The final quarter of To Kill A Shadow gets back to the vengeance plotline. Traveler and a few commune members, including Quinlow and Buford, head off in Traveler’s Meat Wagon van. More bizarre post-nuke stuff ensues, like a memorable visit to “The Hungry Land,” a section of earth created by the Black Rider which feeds on anyone that comes across it, literally; Shirley describes the place as having a pulsing purple glow, very reminiscent of a blacklight poster. Have I mentioned that, in Traveler’s world, the phrase “Satan’s Burned Earth” has replaced the old “God’s Green Earth?” Yet more indication of the black humor which Shirley has invested this series.

Perhaps the grossest monster in the book is a 14-foot long maggot that guards the tunnel that leads into Vallone’s underground military complex; the monster-maggot too was biogenetically created from a man. The battle with it is creepy and gory, leading to some inventive usage of TNT. In fact Shirley spends so much time on monster-bashing that the fights with the Glory Boys almost come off as forgettable; after fighting so many disgusting creatures, some thug in a leather uniform just seems mundane. However, Shirley does at least give memorable sendoffs for Vallone and the Black Rider. 

Interestingly, To Kill A Shadow sees Shirley hastily wrapping up a plot he’s been building over the past two books. This is the same thing he did in the concurrent Specialist series, which featured a hasty wrapup of the overriding vengeance theme in the third volume. To Kill A Shadow was the fourth volume of Traveler, but it was the third one Shirley wrote, so I find it interesting that here he follows the same three-volume vengeance arc. In fact it makes me wonder if in both cases he hedged his bets and wrapped up the plots in case either series didn’t do well and folded early.

While it’s nice to see Traveler get his vengeance, it does come off as a bit unsatisfying, particularly because Shirley spends so much of To Kill A Shadow with the Brother John commune and Traveler’s blindness and young Robbie and etc. Vallone and the Black Rider appear in just a handful of pages each. Given that it turns out this is the last we’ll ever see of them, it would’ve been more satisfying if they’d been a little more visible throughout the novel.

But Shirley, as mentioned, at least gives them memorable sendoffs. Vallone’s is the most outrageous: Traveler, having broken into the military complex, finds a nude Vallone in bed with his latest woman, who has tied Vallone to the bed; Vallone likes to get whipped, you see. Traveler, still holding a stick of dynamite, lubes up the end of the shaft, lights it, and sticks it up Vallone’s ass! He even laughs crazily as he runs out of the room before it explodes, looking back inside at the carnage and destruction.

The Black Rider’s fate is a bit more standard: the mutant escapes the base in a helicopter, and Traveler commandeers another, holding the pilot at gunpoint and ordering him to chase after it. After knocking the Black Rider’s helicopter out of the sky—right over the Hungry Land, conveniently enough – Traveler chases after him, shoots him in the chest twice, and watches happily as the ground opens up and eats its own creator. Which should pretty much be all she wrote for the Black Rider; too bad, as he was the most memorable villain in the series, but as mentioned sadly underused here, only garnering a few lines of dialog.

Along the way Traveler picks up a new comrade in arms: John Link, a muscle-bound black prisoner in Vallone’s complex who served as a Green Beret in ‘Nam. Given that he decides to head to Arizona with Traveler in the finale, I expect we’ll see him in the next volume. However we won’t be seeing Robbie – Traveler, when he returns to the commune, is upset to find that Robbie is gone. Turns out Shumi returned and took the boy with him, stating his plans to train the boy as his apprentice. Here we learn that Traveler had intended to take the boy himself, to be the father figure he needed – quite a bit of character development for a guy who has spent the past two volumes trying to run from responsibility.

Shirley again displays his dark, cynical roots with the revelation here that Brother John is dead, killed by a Snakehead while defending Robbie in yet another attack on the commune. Turns out that John’s “Holy Book” was nothing more than a science fiction paperback from 1986 titled The Holy Warrior, all about a hero who came to save a religious commune in a post-nuke hellscape! It’s this sort of genre-mockery that Shirley pulls off throughout the series, and it’s a lot of fun, mostly because he always plays it so straight; as opposed to The Destroyer, despite the near-parody levels of the series, it’s all quite serious to the characters themselves, thus Traveler can be enjoyed both as an over-the-top exercise in gory horror and as a genuine men’s adventure tale.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying this series; as I’ve mentioned before the post-nuke setting gives Shirley free reign to indulge in his horror and sci-fi roots, so you can tell he too was enjoying it. I’d place Traveler alongside Doomsday Warrior and the almighty Phoenix as the best in post-nuke pulps.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Six Million Dollar Man #1: Wine, Women And War


Six Million Dollar Man #1: Wine, Women And War, by Mike Jahn
No month stated, 1975  Warner Paperback Library

Based on the second Six Million Dollar Man telemovie, Wine, Women And War was courtesy Mike Jahn (sometimes credited as “Michael Jahn”), a prolific author who went on to write as many Six Million Dollar Man novels as series creator Martin Caidin himself. And speaking of Caidin, Jahn in his tie-ins pulled an interesting trick: while all his novels were episode adaptations, Jahn’s version of protagonist Steve Austin was actually based on the character in Caidin’s original novels, not the more family-friendly hero played by Lee Majors in the TV show.

To wit, the Steve Austin of Wine, Women and War is more along the lines of Nick Carter; a good guy who has a dark side, and who doesn’t mind disposing of his enemies in sadistic ways. Also, “Austin” (as Jahn refers to him in the narrative) in the novels has a different bionic makeup: it’s his left arm that’s bionic, rather than the right of the show, and the same for his left eye. Also, the novel version of Austin can store things in his bionic legs: a laser, a radio, and most interestingly a scuba air hose and face mask, for use in underwater missions. He also has a C02-powered gun hidden in the middle finger of his left hand which fires poison darts, which is reminiscent of the “gas gun” used in John Eagle Expeditor.

Indeed, Jahn’s approach to the character is very much in the mold of the series books “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel, and Jahn’s prose is also in the same “BCI style” of all those Engel ghostwriters. This novel, despite its origins as a TV movie tie-in, reads more like an installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster or John Eagle Expeditor, and Jahn has done a wonderful job of making it all appear like an original work. Wisely, he’s toned down the Roger Moore-esque quips of Glen Larson’s script and boosted the action to blockbuster proportions, and with his Caidin-faithful version of Steve Austin he delivers a protagonist who comes off as grim, laconic, and witty all at once.

I’ve wondered why Engel never tried to rip off The Six Million Dollar Man with his own series – it’s debatable if some of John Eagle’s gadgets were lifted from the Caidin novels – but Jahn’s Wine, Women And War gives a good idea of what such a series might have been like. In fact it’s frustrating that Jahn never got to write original stories for this tie-in series, however it appears that all four of his novels differed in some fashion from the episodes they were based on, in some cases even changing the climaxes. It would’ve been cool to see what he was capable of doing with a story of his own, though.

At any rate, Wine, Women And War comes off as a more adult (or perhaps more mature) version of the sometimes-campy TV movie. Other than Steve Austin’s occasional one-liner or quip (some of which do indeed appear in the book, including the infamous “Sorry to violate your porthole”), the tone of the book is straight and serious. It opens in Alexandria, where Austin has been sent on his latest mission, which is to break into a yacht owned by an arms dealer named Arlen Findletter and steal the book that’s supposed to be inside it.

Austin here is neither a veteran spy master nor the heroic do-gooder of the series; he has the same backstory, that of an astronaut turned flight pilot who was rebuilt bionically after a horrendous crash, but he’s rather new to the spy game and indeed isn’t even put in charge of the book’s main assignment, used more as an unwitting dupe. It’s also worth noting that Jahn has retained the same agency name from Caidin’s original books: Austin here works for the OSO, not the more famous OSI of the TV series. However Oscar Goldman is introduced here, same as in the TV movie, but it’s noted that he’s the “right-hand man” of OSO chief McKay (aka Darrin McGavin in the first TV movie). 

Jahn capably brings us into Steve Austin’s world with a modicum of well-crafted prose; within just a few paragraphs we have a good understanding of Austin’s background and his strange, bionic augmentations. Jahn displays this capable pulp writing throughout the book, always keeping things moving. Soon enough Austin, onboard a party on another yacht, has sent off Tamara, a recent bedmate and the daughter of “the Pasha of Calib,” and then he’s rooting around the “plastiskin seals” on his right thigh and pulling out scuba gear so he can infiltrate Findletter’s yacht and break the safe on it.

As mentioned, this version of Austin kills with ease – indeed, there are parts where he toys with his victims before killing them, very much like John Eagle. Boarding Findletter’s boat and finding the safe empty, Austin takes out two guards, killing one of them with the safe itself, which he hurls as if it weighs nothing. He even relishes the idea of getting revenge on the “sons of bitches” for the empty safe, setting an explosive beneath Findletter’s yacht and happily watching as it explodes – with some occupants still on it.

But when Austin gets back to OSO HQ in D.C. he’s crestfallen to learn that Tamara is dead – likely tortured to death by Findletter in an attempt to find out all she knew about the strange American she was recently seen with, ie Austin himself. Oscar Goldman makes his sole appearance here, and he’s more of a crafty, devious spymaster than the affable “pal” of the series; again, much like the version of the character in the TV movie itself, only more duplicitous. We also see Dr. Rudy Wells, scientist responsible for Austin’s bionic makeover, who is aware of Goldman’s duplicity with their “six million dollar man” but can do nothing about it.

As in the TV movie, Austin is hoodwinked into thinking he’s broken free of OSO to take an impromptu vacation in Paradise Cay, an edenic island in the Bahamas. However he’s been set up by his pal, Harry Donner, who turns out to be working under the orders of Oscar Goldman – Donner also turns out to be the chief spy working on this assignment, which again has to do with Findletter. Gradually we’ll learn the villain has stolen nukes from both the US and the USSR and plans to sell them to the highest bidder.

An unwitting Austin heads on to Paradise Cay, inadvertently offending a hotstuff Russian gal who happens to be sitting beside him on the plane; humorously, he mistakes her for a whore Donner has set him up with. Soon enough though Austin meets another babe: Cynthia “Cyn” Holland, an attractive helicopter pilot who lives in the Bahamas and who claims to be Donner’s friend. Immediately she’s hanging out with Austin in Donner’s deluxe pad and offering to mix up some of the “moonshots” Austin is so fond of.

Jahn is unable to escape the coincidental plotting of Larson’s script, thus Austin is surprised to learn that Donner’s place in Paradise Cay is right beside a villa owned by the Soviets, and that hot Russian babe just happens to be staying there. Her name, we’ll learn, is Katrina Volana, and she claims to be some government flunky, but no one will be surprised to learn she’s a spy – though it must be said she doesn’t prove to be a very effective one. Rather, the chief Russian spy here is Alexi, a former cosmonaut and friend of Austin’s.

Also as in the movie, Austin is a babe magnet along the lines of Bond, with Cyn throwing herself at him – however Jahn ends the chapter when Austin pulls her into the cabin of their fishing boat to make good on her offer. But Cyn is for the most part jettisoned from the narrative soon thereafter, relegated to sitting around in a hotel room and occasionally bringing Austin sandwiches or mixing more moonshots. For it turns out she too is a fellow OSO agent, of course, working directly with Harry Donner, now here directing the scene.

Oscar Goldman’s master plan is hard to figure out, but at any rate it all amounts to Austin sort of bullying his way into the world of the Russians. His old pal Alexi knocks him out and Austin wakes up on a yacht, the lovely Katrina at his side – as well as a bunch of Russians with machine guns. Austin is to be a forced guest for a few days; this leads to some quippy dialog with Katrina but no sex, capped off with the “porthole” line before Austin escapes, destroying the yacht in the process. However he ensures no one is killed.

The humor in Wine, Women And War comes from how the Russians keep thinking they’ve killed Austin, only for him to show up later. As here, with Katrina certain the machine gunners got him while he was swimming in the water. No one knows of his bionics, of course, and Katrina and the Russians believe their yacht just hit some big rocks; they don’t realize a human being tore up the bottom of the boat. The novel version of Austin shows his wicked streak, going back to Katrina’s place and coldly murdering the two Russian guards there, one of them with his C02 finger. 

Coincidence be damned, Findletter’s secret HQ is here on Paradise Cay; it’s a “high-rise tombstone” where millionaires apparently go for their final place of rest. Scenes are duplicated here, with Austin sneaking into the place twice and watching as Alexi and Katrina meet with the evil weapons dealer. On his first trip Austin learns that Findletter has four nuclear warheads; in his escape he kills two of Findletter’s men with a submachine gun. The second trip is more action-packed, with Austin saving Alexi and Katrina, whom Findletter was about to kill with nerve gas, having assumed they were working with Austin.

There’s no big action finale for Wine, Women And War; instead it’s more of a tense affair, with Austin and Katrina trying to elude Findletter’s guards while alerting the Navy of a Findletter plot to kill all the men on a nuclear sub. This task is mostly handled by Harry Donner, while Austin breaks the power circuit of Findletter’s HQ. The villain himself is given an apocalyptic sendoff, Austin wiring the US poseidon missile in Findletter’s silo to blow, taking out Findletter, his goons, his base, and probably a few miles of Paradise Cay itself.

That’s it – we don’t even get the obligatory wrapup where it’s confirmed that Austin and Katrina will be jumping in bed together. Jahn ends the tale with them all in a helicopter, Austin having successfully completed his mission and the world saved. As mentioned Jahn’s writing is economical and fast-moving, in other words perfect pulp. I also enjoyed this grim view of Steve Austin, a character much different from the one on the show. I look forward to reading Jahn’s other Six Million Dollar Man tie-ins.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Black Swan #2: The Cong Kiss


Black Swan #2: The Cong Kiss, by J.J. Montague
No month stated, 1974  Canyon Books

Running to three volumes and published by Canyon Books, the same outfit that gave us the early volumes of Hitman and, uh, The Illusionist, Black Swan is ostensibly about a horny female spy, much along the lines of the vastly superior The Baroness. However this is one of those series that is woefully overpriced on the used books marketplace, so I’ve only been able to acquire this second volume – sort of.

For, as I read The Cong Kiss, my Sleaze Senses started tingling. Within the first few pages, in which we are introduced to series protagonist Shauna Bishop, a “latent nymphomaniac” brunette spy babe who lives in Newport Beach and who allows herself to have sex with one random guy per week, I was stricken by a feeling of déjà vu. I was certain I’d read something identical to this, and not too long ago.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, folks – the other year I picked up a 1971 paperback titled Code Name: Gypsy Virgin, credited to Max Nortic and published by sleaze imprint Midwood Books. This was one I’d started reading but given up on midway through. I got my copy back out and thumbed through it. Just as I expected, the style was identical, with even some of the exact same words and phrases throughout, particularly when it came to the introduction of the lusty heroine.

The plot of Code Name: Gypsy Virgin was about a “latent nymphomaniac” brunette spy babe named Erica Wilson who allowed herself to have sex with one random guy per week, and who was eventually called out on an assignment in which she had to give vent to her sapphic impulses. The style of the book was more literary than pulpy, with random bursts of hardcore sleaze throughout. Doing some research, it appears that the plot of The Chinese Kiss (ie the first installment of Black Swan, published in 1974), was the same as that in Code Name: Gypsy Virgin: Shauna Bishop had to go lesbian for her assignment.

So then it seems pretty clear that some unknown author published Code Name: Gypsy Virgin as “Max Nortic” for Midwood, and then a few years later went back to his manuscript, changed “Erica Wilson” to “Shauna Bishop,” and sold the book to Canyon – and this time also got a deal for a series. No idea if “J.J. Montague” was his real name, but the Black Swan series is credited to Canyon. The closest comparison I can make to Montague’s style in the genre would be James Fritzhand, a literary author who delivered the Nick Carter installment The Katmandu Contract.

For like Fritzhand, Montague appears as if he’d be more at home penning a Proustian-type work of insight and introspection, heavy with the topical flourishes and scene setting, and not so heavy with the action or excitement. There’s some quality writing throughout The Cong Kiss, even at some points echoing the style of Joseph Conrad (whom Montague name-drops in the narrative), but when it comes to the action it’s very tepid, relegated to brief fistfights or firefights. The novel is more of an espionage thriller than anything, only leavened with elaborate sex scenes every several pages.

Above I wrote that Shauna Bishop was “ostensibly” the protagonist of the Black Swan series. Humorously, though, she spends the majority of The Cong Kiss sitting in a hotel room in Thailand while her fellow agent – and bedmate – Paul Hiller does all the heavy lifting. The true star of the show, Hiller is a tough secret agent in the Nick Carter mold. The Cong Kiss is weirdly formatted: it opens with Shauna in her Newport Beach pad, having just sent off her latest random lay, and reflecting back on her first assignment, “four years ago.” The Cong Kiss is that first assignment, thus the entire novel is a sort of neverending flashback.

Strangely though, despite Shauna setting off the proceedings via her reminiscing, Paul Hiller is the protagonist, and rarely do we even see Shauna! Anyway, the novel flashes back four years and stays there until the final pages. Shauna’s first field operation has her going to Bangkok, where she’s to assist her boyfriend, Paul Hiller. The two are in a hot ‘n heavy sexual relationship, and Hiller’s concerned that Sheila’s emotions will endanger them. Also, he doesn’t think she’s got the right stuff to be a field agent – other, that is, than her nymphomania, thus she has no qualms when Paul occasionally orders her to go screw some guy so as to pose a distraction.

As mentioned, Montague fills the novel with plentiful sex scenes, the majority of them displaying a kinky oral bent – Shauna is real fond of going down on guys, especially Paul, who is eager to repay Sheila in oral kind. The sex scenes too tread the literary line, evidencing the unusual style Montague employs for the book:

Their bodies found the right rhythm, as the softness of her legs locked around the hardness of his skull. He kissed softly, lifting her up higher with each kiss, and tonguing into her, burying his face against the drenched flesh of her, lips sinking, nubbing the turgid cavity, while she gasped and thrust it up closer for him, wanting him to pull the sweet gift out of her, out of the vulva-heart, going madly out of her mind for the moment of it, wanting him to drown in there. His tongue was a feathery rage, encircling the labia, then his mouth was open for the final nurturing vaginal kiss.

And for all that, occasionally Montague will figure to hell with it and just go for low-brow sleaze, ie: “And then Paul was kissing her full, warm tits.”

The plot of The Cong Kiss has Sheila and Paul in Bangkok, there to bring back to the US a former Green Beret who went rogue named Winston Belle. Having served as a mercenary with the Viet Cong and the Thailand Cong Hai, Belle has apparently undergone a change of heart and wants to come back to the US. Paul and Sheila’s superiors have their hesitations but send the two in anyway. Sheila goes along because it was through her old school friend, a French babe named Claudette, that the US has even been able to make contact with Belle again.

Thus it’s all very “Hearts Of Darkness in Thailand” as these four characters plot and counterplot against one another, Sheila as mentioned spending most of her time in her hotel room and eagerly screwing Paul when he’s come back from his latest foray. Sheila and Paul at one point share a room with Claudette, and a devious Sheila one night drugs Claudette just so she can get off on Paul screwing her right beside the comatose form of her old school pal:

She moaned and groaned softly as she felt the heart-shaped head spear into her, followed by one long thrust of the entire length of him. He filled her stretched cavity with one plunge, then pounded her into the floor with triphammer thrusts. She twisted and squirmed under him, her knees pulled up even with his head, sobbing and babbling at the insane pleasure she was receiving, jerking with frantic spasms as one climax after another exploded inside her.

When he finally crushed her thrashing body to him and rammed home into her depths, she raked his back in erotic frenzy as he emptied into her, filling her with his gushing discharge as he spent himself entirely. Exhausted, he collapsed on her, twitching as she continued milking and pulling at his half-flaccid meat.

A scene, by the way, which features Sheila imploring Paul to place his “heart-shaped head” right over the lips of a sleeping Claudette! But don’t worry, ol’ Claudette gets her own go with Paul later in the book. However Claudette is in love with Winston Belle and serves more as a thorn in Paul and Sheila’s side, constantly trying to keep her “true love” from the harm she is certain Paul and Sheila will bring him.

There isn’t much action at all, just a few chases and fights. Montague goes for more of a suspense vibe, with the book as mentioned having more of a realistic espionage yarn, playing more on the duplicitous nature of the Thai agents our heroes must work with. But there’s no big climax (so to speak), and of course there’s no tension because we already know all this happened four years ago and thus Sheila made it out just fine.

All told, The Cong Kiss doesn’t have much going for it, other than a somewhat literate style and a penchant for random bursts of hardcore sleaze – much like The Illusionist, in fact, but much less gut-churning. But the sad fact is the book is boring despite it all, and I do not recommend paying the absurd prices these books go for – you aren’t missing much with this particular series.